98 min., rated R.
The trend in adapting works by Stephen King has hitherto declined in recent years, and perhaps that’s because some of his stories read better on the page than they do on film. An adaptation of King’s 2006 novel, “Cell” is the latest misguided treatment and, were it any good, it might have seen a wide theatrical release back in the day with former marquee names like John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson. Unfortunately, as written by Adam Alloca (2009’s “The Last House on the Left”) and King, himself, and directed by Tod Williams (2010’s “Paranormal Activity 2”), this dull and unimaginatively realized technophobic horror-cautionary tale belongs down in the pits with "Maximum Overdrive," where Emilio Estevez was up against homicidal semi-trucks. It is a quarter “Dawn of the Dead,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “The Happening” and “The Crazies,” albeit without much of a comment to make—be a Luddite or become a zombie?—and the startling moments few and far between. Even a nightmarish concept derived from other movies can be effective if done well. In this case, though, it is impossible to believe that what has shown up on the screen was actually anyone's vision.
Maine graphic novelist Clay Riddell (John Cusack) has just landed in Boston’s Logan Airport after landing a book deal. When an electromagnetic signal taps into everyone’s cell phone, users are turned into wildly murderous, mouth-foaming zombies. With his cell battery dead, Clay manages to escape with subway train driver Tom (Samuel L. Jackson), and once they find temporary refuge in Clay’s apartment building, they are joined by teenage upstairs neighbor Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman), who’s still in shock from having to kill her infected mother. And then there were three, but as this trio of disparate survivors make their way through New England—Clay wants to find his estranged wife and son—the zombies (“phoners”) are everywhere and the signal (“The Pulse”) is far from over.
After the laughable stream of—not kidding—five production company logos and the most amateurishly designed credit sequence in some time, “Cell” at least ropes one in with its opening scene in the Logan Airport. Director Tod Williams doesn’t let more than five minutes go by to ratchet up the anarchic intensity and deliver the gruesome goods: a police officer starts biting into his K-9 best friend; a teenage girl smashes her teeth into the wall until they fall out; a restaurant cook goes on a stabbing spree. It’s as scary and unsettling as things get, and then after that, the film listlessly goes downhill and never gets back up. In a reunion of sorts after both appearing together in 2007’s superior Stephen King adaptation “1408,” John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson are obviously more than capable but make a minimal impression. Cusack does his best to hold this familiar material together, but aside from his Clay Riddell, no other character is explored satisfactorily well. Isabelle Fuhrman, so astonishingly frightening at only 12 years old in 2009’s “Orphan,” conveys the most empathy as Alice, but she's as underserved by the script as anyone. Also, as an enigmatic school headmaster full of exposition, Stacy Keach has a handful of scenes but taken out of the picture too early.
If “Cell” begins with a jolt of urgency, the proceedings are as ineffectual as a cell phone dropping into a toilet bowl. At best, it’s occasionally daft and erratically shot, and at worst, it’s terribly unexciting. The two other times the film almost comes close to the buzz and pulse of its first scene is an attack in a tavern and the sight of a soccer field of zombies sleeping snug as a bug in a rug before being set ablaze. Then, there’s the so-called “phoners,” who emit the sound of a blenderized rock from their open mouths, but beyond the doozy opener, they are more annoying than threatening. By the time the viewer hopes the film will at least reach one of King’s chillingly grim conclusions instead of his unsatisfying ones, this one self-destructs into idiotic incoherence. The inherent problem is that, despite an interesting take on the dangers of cell phones, “Cell” has already been beaten to the punch by many other zombie movies (and TV's "The Walking Dead"). With its aspirations and the outcome so vastly apart, there was a smarter, more frightening and thematic treatment within the filmmakers’ reach. As is, this is just a B-movie in C-movie clothing, feeding debate on whether this is actually worse than the confused but ambitious and one-third-good mess that was 2003's "Dreamcatcher." One is better off just holding out for “It” and “The Dark Tower.”
Grade: D +